Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Object of the Day, Museum Edition: A Heraldic “Swete Bag,” 1540

Swete Bag
The Victoria & Albert Museum

To find an object such as this from the Sixteenth Century is quite rare. Here, we see a very formal, heraldic purse which was often used as part of a marriage ceremony to hold gifts of money for the betrothed couple. However, this purse would later have a more practical use than simply being a receptacle for coins.

Purses such as this one of four linen panels (cut in a shield shape) and embroidered in silks were called “swete-bags” and were used for carrying perfumed herbs to scent the air. Such purses were carried by both men and women either on the arm, in the hand over around the waist.

This example appears to have been intended to hang from the waist. Though we tend to think of objects from the Sixteenth Century as being somewhat rough, that’s not the case. We can see from this swete bag that the workmanship is extremely fine and features 1,250 silk stitches per square inch.

These bags and other personal items also offered a wonderful opportunity to display the family coat of arms as a way of not only proclaiming ownership, but reinforcing station and lineage. Here, we see the arms of the Calthorpe family, and we can tell by associated records that the purse was used in four wedding ceremonies. 

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